Excerpt from Mr. April
Book #4 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series
At nine on the dot Tuesday morning, Hallie Sawyer strode into the visitors area of the Guff's Lake Fire Department. The sound of her heels clicking across the tile floor made her feel important. Her whole carefully crafted look, from her French twist to her crisp linen blouse, pencil skirt and summer pumps screamed professional magazine writer—she hoped.
So what if she'd spent more on the outfit than her budget allowed? Making an impression mattered. And she so needed this assignment to pan out.
Forcing a confident smile, she approached the thirty-something female seated behind a protective glass barrier. "Hi, Ms. Zindell," she said after a quick glance at the woman's nameplate. "I have an appointment with Captain Comings."
Hallie had contacted Fire Prevention magazine about writing a four-part series profiling fire departments in midsize towns across the country, with Guff's Lake, Oregon, as the launch story. As yet the magazine had contracted for only the Guff's Lake story, but if the article was good enough, surely a series would follow.
Had to, because making her hard-earned money stretch between writing assignments wasn't easy. A little short-term certainty would be nice, and who knew what doors her success might open?
"Everyone calls me Miranda," the receptionist said. She gave Hallie a quizzical look. "Do I know you?"
"I don't believe so. I'm Hallie Sawyer."
Miranda's eyes widened before she offered the sympathetic look Hallie had come to expect and dread. "I remember you from the Guff's Lake News. I'm so sorry."
After four years and umpteen more recent tragedies and distractions, you'd think people would forget. But no. Hallie wished the well-meaning people of Guff's Lake would find someone else to tiptoe around instead. "Thank you," she murmured with barely a stumble.
"I'll let Captain Comings know you're here." Miranda picked up the phone and made the call. "He'll be out shortly—with Owen Ayers," she said, clearly expecting a reaction.
AKA Mr. April in the Guff's Lake Fire Department calendar? Ooh. Covering her surprise, Hallie feigned nonchalance. After all, she was a professional writer. Besides, she already knew Owen. Or had. Sort of. Back in high school.
Along with almost everyone else in town, she owned a copy of the calendar that the fire department sold every year, and not just to gaze at the twelve gorgeous males featured—one each month. Proceeds from calendar sales went to the department's benefit fund, which provided assistance to those who needed it after a fire.
Although Hallie had lived in Guff's Lake all her life, she'd never set foot inside the fire department. "Do you mind if I take pictures of your lobby?" she asked.
"Be my guest."
She wandered around the visitors area, which was filled with photos and memorabilia. A 1913 fire engine from when the department had first opened made for an eye-catching centerpiece. She snapped photos with her cell phone camera and jotted down notes. And wondered about Owen and seeing him in person after all these years… What would that be like?
As she admired the black and white photos from days gone by, the captain and Owen entered the area. She didn't need the calendar to recognize Owen—even if she hadn't seen him since the end of her freshman year in high school. She'd read about his wedding in the paper and later about his divorce, but otherwise had lost track of him.
Neither her memories nor his calendar photo did him justice. Unbelievably, he was even more striking in person than he had been in high school—tall and muscled, with a buzz cut and a strong chin.
A handsome male in his own right, the forty-something captain extended his arm. "Hello, Ms. Sawyer. I'm Captain Comings."
"Please, call me Hallie," she said, smiling as she shook his hand.
"All right. Hallie, this is Owen Ayers—the firefighter I've assigned to show you around and answer any questions while you're here."
Hallie and Owen shook hands. His warm, firm grasp dwarfed hers and conveyed confidence. The magnetic eyes no sane woman could forget, a little close together and a startling navy blue, held her gaze and brought back the fluttery feeling she'd had in high school.
"Weren't you in Pearl's class at Orchard High?" he asked.
He remembered? "That's right. Freshman year, we played on the girls' JV soccer team together and became friends. You were on the boys' varsity basketball team."
"That was a long time ago."
"Fifteen years." But Hallie hadn't forgotten. From the second she'd laid eyes on Owen Ayers, she'd been smitten with the biggest crush…
Four years older and a senior, he'd never paid her any attention. Why would he? She'd been skinny and straight as a stick, with a mouth full of braces. Besides, all his focus had been on beautiful Colleen, his steady girlfriend and now ex-wife.
"Let's go into the training room and talk," Captain Comings said. He entered a code into a keypad on a locked door. When the latch clicked open, he gestured Hallie through.
With the distinct feeling the two men were assessing her from the back, she straightened her shoulders and entered the interior of the fire department.
Owen wasn't thrilled about being shadowed for two days, but he could do a lot worse than spend a few days showing Hallie Sawyer around, he thought as he and the captain flanked her on the way to the training room. She was attractive. About five feet seven and curvy. Tawny skin, big eyes, dark brown hair pulled back into something fancy. Great legs, too, at least from what he could see in her knee-length skirt.
She looked a whole lot different from when the Rogue Valley News and online reporters had plastered photos of her everywhere during the weeks following the tragedy.
Surely he would have remembered the teenage version of her. He didn't. He could only recall that she and his sister Pearl had hung out in high school. He'd been too wrapped up in Colleen and his own life to pay attention to his sister's friends. He made a mental note to look Hallie up in the yearbook—if he could find it. No doubt, Pearl had held onto her copy.
The stuff he knew about Hallie was more recent. For months, her agonizing story had haunted him and everyone else in town. A member of the well-known and respected Sawyer Construction family, pregnant and soon to be married, she had had everything to look forward to, and life had looked bright and promising. Until the fateful evening Simon Wharton, her fiancé, had stopped at a convenience store to pick up a fresh supply of the beef jerky she craved during her pregnancy.
Minutes later, two thugs high on meth and intent on robbing the store had entered the building. In a classic holdup-gone-bad, Simon had been shot and killed, his only mistake being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Owen and his eleven crewmates had been off-duty that night, but the story had quickly spread through the entire department and the whole of Guff's Lake.
If that wasn't horrendous enough, shortly after the funeral Hallie had miscarried.
Compared to her losses, his sob story seemed trivial.
The captain gestured Hallie to take a seat at the table the station used for group trainings. Owen sat next to him, across from her. The table was wide, and about seven feet separated them. Even so, he could smell her perfume. Something subtle and sweet. Lilacs—a breath of spring in the scorching summer. Nice mouth, too. Her generous lips looked soft and inviting.
But he wasn't here to think about that.
"At the Guff's Lake Fire Department, our crews work two back-to-back, twenty-four-hour shifts per week," Captain Comings began. "This crew works Mondays and Tuesdays."
Her head bent toward her note pad, she scribbled furiously while her mouth formed an intriguing O.
The captain nodded for Owen to take over.
"As Captain Comings mentioned, I'll be showing you the ropes and answering any questions while you shadow me."
She looked up, her eyes lit with excitement. "I get to shadow you for forty-eight hours straight?"
Owen couldn't believe she'd asked.
The captain appeared equally flabbergasted. "That won't be possible. You're welcome here between seven-thirty and eighteen hundred hours—we use military time. Our morning meeting begins at zero eight hundred sharp. Owen will give you a copy of our Ride Along Policy. Read it before you come back."
Owen slid the paper across the table to her. "When will your article be published?"
"It's scheduled for the November issue of Fire Prevention magazine. As soon as I get copies, I'll send one to the department."
"We'll look forward to reading it," the captain said. While she put the ride-along rules in her notes folio he nodded at Owen and stood. "I'll leave you two to work out the details.
"You wouldn't want to sleep here even for one night," Owen said after his boss left. "Sometimes we're so busy we don't rest much."
"But I'd get a real feel for what you experience in forty-eight hours."
His head filled with all sorts of interesting late-night images, none of them having to do with his job. He cleared his throat. "You'll learn plenty during the day. Besides, there's no place for you to bunk."
Hallie nodded. "Why don't you employ any female firefighters here?"
"We'd like to, but so far it hasn't worked out."
"This is a physically difficult job and extremely competitive. For every job opening we post, we get upward of two thousand applications. Most are from men, but occasionally a woman applies."
"What do you do on a twenty-four-hour shift?"
"I'll show you Monday. Our shift officially begins with a meeting at zero eight hundred, but if I were you, I'd arrive at seven-thirty and join us for breakfast. Ditto with lunch, which is at twelve hundred. Both are BYOF—bring your own food. Your day here ends when we sit down to dinner."
"Okay. Do you bring your own dinner, too?"
Owen shook his head. "We take turns providing and cooking the evening meal."
"Is it okay to take photos for the article?"
She sure was full of questions. "You'll have to clear that with the captain. Punctuality is important, so be on time. One more thing, which you'll read about when you look over the Ride-Along Policy. Dress conservatively and neatly in dark pants and a shirt. No sandals or heels." Wanting to return to the job, he checked his watch.
"You probably need to get back to work." Hallie slid her folio into a large shoulder bag and stood. "Thanks for giving me this opportunity."
"My pleasure." Before he could stop himself, his gaze swept over her.
Damn, he liked what he saw. He opened the door to the lobby and ushered her through.